For this month’s Shhhhh Cooking Secretly Challenge, we food bloggers explored the cuisine of Himachal Pradesh, a land blessed with abundant natural beauty, with several beautiful indigenous foods.
About Himachali Cuisine
The cuisine of Himachal Pradesh is simple, yet hearty and flavourful, many of the foods fermented and slow-cooked. There is considerable influence from the neighbouring Jammu & Kashmir, Tibet and Punjab on the food of Himachal Pradesh.
Considering a variety of leafy greens and vegetables are tough to grow on the harsh terrain, the Himachalis residing on the high hills (say, in Spiti or Lahaul) depend heavily on rice, meat, hardy grains like buckwheat, millets and barley, as well as dried lentils. In the foothills, seasonal vegetables and greens are consumed aplenty, ,where they are relatively easier to grow. As you move towards the south of the state, you will find more and more people tending to livestock and undertaking agriculture as a way of life – here, the consumption of dairy products is also higher. Wherever you go in Himachal Pradesh, you will find an utter devotion to different varieties of tea, including one called Tchaku Cha, prepared with butter, salt and milk.
The Himachali Dham – a meal consisting of a several courses, typically prepared by the Brahmin cooks of Kangra Valley called botis – is perhaps the best known thing from this state. Chana or Rajma Madra, an aromatic rice that is served with a mixed-lentil daal and khatta, and Mitha Bhaat are some of the dishes that typically form part of a Himachali dham. The dham is reminiscent of the Kashmiri Wazwan – both are multi-course meals fit for kings, but while the Wazwan is predominantly non-vegetarian, the dham is entirely vegetarian. Legend has it that centuries ago, Jaisthambh, the then king of Himachal Pradesh was so fascinated by Kashmiri Wazwan that he ordered his cooks to prepare a similar multi-course, vegetarian meal – and that is how the dham came about.
For this month’s Shhhhh Cooking Secretly Challenge, I was paired with the talented Sujata Roy, who blogs at Batter Up With Sujata. She allotted me the two secret ingredients of cumin and tamarind, and I used them to prepare Chamba Chukh, a fiery dried red chilli pickle from the Chamba Valley.
The chukh has several variations throughout Himachal Pradesh, I hear. It is made in slightly different ways in different homes, though the basic ingredients remain the same. These days, ready-made bottled chukh is available in stores too, with their own little variations. Some people add honey and lots of dried fruits and nuts to it, while some prefer keeping it quite hot with not a hint of sweetness. The version I made is hot too, but I tried to even it out by adding lots of lemon juice and some jaggery. The result was a delectable chukh, which makes for a beautiful accompaniment to rotis, idlis and dosas, a lovely spread for nachos, pizzas, sandwiches and rolls. I love how it jazzes up a dull dish, adds a zing to otherwise bland dishes. The chukh travels really well too, and can be stored for up to a month.
Here is how I made the Chamba Chukh.
Recipe Courtesy: Adapted from The Picky Bowl, with a few variations of my own
Ingredients (yields about 1 cup):
For the spice powder:
- 1 teaspoon dhania aka coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon rai aka mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon ajwain aka carom seeds
- 1 teaspoon methi dana aka fenugreek seeds
- 1 teaspoon jeera aka cumin seeds
- 1 cup dry red chillies
- A small lemon-sized ball of tamarind
- Salt, to taste
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 2 tablespoons amchoor powder
- 2-3 tablespoons jaggery, or to taste
- A 1-inch piece of ginger
- 10 fat garlic cloves
- Juice of 2 lemons, or to taste
- 1/4 cup mustard oil
- 2 pinches of hing aka asafoetida
- Soak the dry red chillies in just enough water to cover them, for about 30 minutes.
- Soak the tamarind in a little boiling water for about 10 minutes. When it is cool enough to handle, squeeze the tamarind and extract a thick juice from the tamarind. Add a little more water if necessary. Keep aside.
- Peel the ginger and garlic cloves. Chop up the ginger. Keep aside.
- Now, we will get the spice mix ready. Get a pan nice and hot, and then lower the flame to medium. Add in the coriander seeds, mustard, carom seeds, fenugreek seeds and cumin seeds. Dry roast the ingredients on medium flame till they begin to emit a lovely fragrance, taking care to ensure that they do not burn. Transfer to a plate, and allow to cool down completely.
- When the spices have cooled down entirely, grind them into a powder in a mixer. Keep aside.
- Once the dry red chillies have soaked for about 30 minutes and have softened a bit, drain out all the water from them. Transfer them to a mixer jar and add in the chopped ginger and garlic cloves. Grind to a paste. Keep aside.
- Heat the mustard oil in a pan till it reaches smoking point. Now, lower the flame to medium. Add in the spice mix we prepared earlier. Let it stay in for a couple of seconds.
- Now, add the ground dry red chilly paste to the pan, along with salt to taste, amchoor powder, jaggery, asafoetida, turmeric powder and the extracted tamarind paste. Mix well.
- Cook on medium flame for 3-4 minutes, stirring intermittently. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.
- Let the pickle cool down completely. Now, mix in the lemon juice well. Store in a clean, dry, air-tight bottle.
- Chamba chukh is typically made using mustard oil. I have used kacchi ghani mustard oil here.
- The amount of ginger and garlic I have used here was just perfect for our taste buds. You may use more or less of these ingredients, depending upon your personal taste preferences.
- Typically, sugar or honey is used to sweeten the Chamba chukh. I have used jaggery here, instead. If you want to keep the chukh fiery, you can skip the jaggery/sugar/honey altogether.
- Increase/decrease the quantity of lemon juice you use, depending upon your taste preferences.
- I have made this Chamba chukh tangier and sweeter than it traditionally is, to mitigate the spiciness, considering we don’t eat very spicy food at home.
- Some Himachalis also soak dry fruits – apricots, raisins and the like – in warm water for a while, grind them and add the same to the chukh. I haven’t.
- You may add 1 teaspoon fennel aka saunf to the spice mix, for more flavour. I skipped it.
- Typically, Kashmiri chillies or Himachali fresh green/red chillies are used to make this Chamba chukh. Here, I have used a mix of the hot, round Guntur chillies and the less spicy, long Bydagi chillies.
- Refrigerated in a clean, dry, air-tight container, the pickle stays for over a fortnight. Use only a clean, dry spoon to remove the chukh.
You like? I hope you will try out this Chamba Chukh recipe too, and that you will love it as much as we did!